I want to welcome back guest writer Peter Papachronopoulos who penned this week’s installment of Odd Jobs. He’s a funny guy and if you like his stuff here, feel free to check out his website: http://theloweststair.
Odd job: Holiday puppet show
A fateful text alighted on my phone one Sunday morning this past November, jarring me awake with its endless buzzing. My brain streamed groggy profanities as I reached out to silence the noisy message. It was from my friend, Katie, who needed help. She and her partner had agreed to substitute for two other friends in a kids’ puppet show. But her partner had just dropped out. So she needed a sub for a sub. Was I available? I let an F-bomb loose and prepared to let Katie down nicely. Me plus puppets plus children would surely equal disaster, as puppets creep me out and I hate everything about children. As I texted her back, though, my instinct to help a friend seized control of my brain. Reflexively, my fingers wrote back that I’d be more than happy to help!! Yes. I used two exclamation marks, which legally obligated me to help.
Had I been fully awake, I might have processed more vital information in Katie’s text. Like that the puppet show was that same day. Or that it started in one hour. Um. Katie wrote back immediately—she was on her way. As I stumble-leapt-crashed out of bed, I tried to ignore the dread tightening in my chest. I’d agreed to do something I was in no way qualified for. Puppetry? For kids? Didn’t I need certification for that? Then I got another Katie text, noting that we’d get $75 for five hours of work. Hm. It’s just puppets and kids! No problem!
Minutes later, Katie’s car skidded to a stop at my place, then peeled away as soon as I hopped in. As we sped along, Katie broke it down. We were part of a Christmas street festival in a fancy Chicago neighborhood. There would be roasted nut vendors, a man in a Rudolph costume, and, of course, a Santa at which children could scream their gift needs. Katie and I would sit at the back of a stationary store in the middle of this madness, entertaining kids as their parents shopped for overpriced knickknacks. As the words “easy money” floated into my mind, Katie uttered the word “singing.” My heart stopped. And then I crapped myself. If I’m not the worst singer in the world, I’m definitely in the bottom million. Katie told me to relax. Just some fun, simple Christmas songs. We tried practicing a few. But here’s the thing. I haven’t sung children’s Christmas songs for years. Have you? Does anyone not a kid and not a caregiver to kids ever sing these songs? I ask these questions because I’m stalling, because I’m ashamed to admit that I blanked on 85% of the lyrics to “Frosty the Snowman.” I had the part about him being a happy soul, but what was before happy? A merry happy soul? Eff it. Was he alive as he could be? Maybe, but that’s a stupid lyric if you think about it. Wait, the children know something, right? What do they know? And isn’t there something about a magic hat? If it’s magical, why the hell is it just lying around? Oh shit, focus Peter, here come the thumps! Ahhhh! There are so many thumps! Why is he thumping so much?
It was a rough rehearsal. But after enough practice, we managed to get down “Frosty,” “Rudolph,” and “Jingle Bells.” “We won’t sing much,” Katie reassured me, although this time her reassurance was tinged with 15% Jesus-this-guy-doesn’t-know-effing-”Frosty?” “We’re just chitchatting with the kids,” she stressed, “singing is only a back-up plan.” I soon discovered, however, that kids don’t enjoy chitchatting with puppets. During our five-hour performance, I sang “Frosty,” “Jingle Bells,” and “Rudolph” at least 45 times. Each. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
When we arrived at the stationary shop, we were greeted by its owner, a frail, silver-haired woman in her 60s with an unbelievably raspy voice. She whisked us past shelves and free-standing displays packed with holiday-themed trinkets, ornaments, cards, and toys, all in that category of stuff that you see and think, “Oh that’s nice!” But when you imagine actually owning it you think, “Nevermind, I absolutely do not want a poorly carved, wooden, three-inch-tall reindeer with a lopsided smile.” The owner ushered us into the back storage room, which inexplicably was filled with things I actually wanted to buy, none of which was displayed out front. Beautiful framed art, stacks of vintage postcards, and a life-size, black-and-white, young-heartthrob Elvis Presley cardboard cutout that faced the back room bathroom and twice that day made eye contact with me and caused me to scream in surprise. I love that Elvis cutout. As I wondered what the hell was going on in this ass-backwards store, the owner told us in her deep, scratchy voice that we had five minutes to get ready. Then she spent four of those precious minutes giving us the backstory to our show, which involved her being BFFs with the original puppeteers. Apparently, they’re incredibly talented, had done this show five years in a row, and always boost her sales with their performances. Oh, and neighborhood kids love seeing them every year. So, you know, definitely no pressure. “See you out there.” And, with a single hacking cough, she was gone.
Katie quickly removed the puppets from a duffel bag. They were the ones used in the show in previous years, both realistic-looking bears. One was small and adorable, with a scarf and a newsie cap. The other was mammoth, about five feet tall, with an almost-too-real painted rubber face. It had a beach ball inside it that gave it a huge belly when inflated. As I reached for the smaller bear, Katie thrust the ginormous one into my arms. But Katie, I protested, this one is wearing a tutu and is clearly a girl. She looked confused. I reminded her that my voice is deep and I’m technically a man. “That’s what makes it funny.” I couldn’t disagree, so I began manually inflating the beach ball as she filled me in on the puppets’ personal histories. My puppet’s name was Beartha the Bear. She made her tutu herself and is married to the svelte, be-scarfed Beary the Bear. As I left the back room carrying a puppet roughly my size, my sweaty hand tucked firmly inside its head, ready to move its mouth in a semi-believable way, I started panicking. What if I said something inappropriate or profane? I’m prone to that shit. Or what if this bear puppet was too realistic and gave kids nightmares? I’d be in those nightmares as the creepy puppeteer! Or what if I forgot the lyrics to a song and looked a fool to some 1st graders?
Actually, that last one happened an hour into the show. A 6-year-old boy who had heard our entire catalog twice requested a song. “Sure!” Katie agreed. If she had looked in my direction, she’d have seen me mouthing something like “Please, for the love of God, no, I have no idea how to sing that song, please God no.” She didn’t look over at me. Instead, she launched into a rendition of the requested song: “Good King Wenceslas.” Yep. A 6-year-old boy requested “Good King Wenceslas,” an 1850s Christmas carol described by critics in the early 1900s as “poor and commonplace to the last degree” and “ponderous moral doggerel” which, if sung correctly, “sounds ridiculous.” These are the opinions of early-1900s critics! “Doggerel” was an F-bomb to them. So Katie nailed the song while I made my puppet dance, silently and pathetically. The boy stared at Beartha the whole time, and halfway through the song he loudly asked his mother, “Why is that one not singing?” As my soul curled up and died slowly in my stomach, the mother coolly replied, “I think that puppet celebrates Hanukkah.” Oh yes. I was burned by a soccer mom.
Thankfully, save for the “Wenceslas” fiasco, the first half of the show went smoothly, except for all those times I had to tragically pair my voice, in desperate need of auto-tune, with Katie’s angelic one. The highlight of those first few hours was the infant in his stroller captivated by my bear. After a little puppet handwaving, he started giggling uncontrollably. That laugh! Pure, unbridled giggle-joy! In that moment, I caught a glimpse of how kids can be not entirely awful.
After that day, I amended my “I hate children” attitude to apply only to kids old enough to think they know something but not old enough to realize no one cares. For example, kids four and younger didn’t think the puppets were real, but they couldn’t be sure, so they sat there, rapt with wonder and disbelief, trying to apply skills of rational inquiry to something fantastical. Our puppets were their Higgs boson. The older kids were the terrible ones, a lesson I learned later in the day. It came with an hour to go, just after Katie and I witnessed Rudolph for the second time take off his costume head and disappear into the back room for a pee break. As we recovered from what is truly an innocence-shattering sight for those of any age, the riffraff sauntered into the shop. By riffraff, I mean a family consisting of one eight-ish-year-old boy, one six-ish-year-old boy, one four-ish-year-old girl, and two three-ish-year-old twin boys. Their mother spent the entirety of their stay in the store on her phone, as far from her children as possible. I can’t say I blame her for wanting the distance from her kids, but still. Parent fail. Katie and I began our spiel, asking the kids their names, how old they were, and what they wanted for Christmas. This went fine, until the eight-year-old remembered puppets are fake and his look of wonder melted into one of impish glee. Thus began the following exchange:
Boy: “That’s not real, is it?”
Me: “No, it’s a puppet.”
Katie had told me to be truthful with the older kids, since this would help gain their respect. It almost worked. He was flabbergasted by my honesty. But he soon recovered:
Boy: “Your hand makes it move.”
Me: “Yes it does.”
Boy: “That’s stupid.”
Me: “I don’t think so. I think it’s funny.”
Boy: “I think it’s stupid.”
Me: “I think you’re stupid, you shitty asshole kid.”
Boy: “What did you say?”
Me: “I said you are a shitty asshole, and I think you are going to grow up to be a horrible, depressed person, and you are probably going to kill yourself by the time you are 35.”
Okay, the last part didn’t happen. But how awesome would that have been? Instead, I ignored the boy and focused on his younger sister and twin brothers. Katie, meanwhile, was grappling with the six-year-old boy, who kept trying to rip off Beary’s hat and scarf while cackling like a James Bond villain. The eight-year-old, undeterred, shoved his hand into Beartha’s mouth. “See? It doesn’t hurt because it isn’t real!” He looked triumphant until I closed the rubber bear mouth on his fingers. He pulled his hand away, terrified, and then clearly felt humiliated and furious for getting played by Beartha. The mother kept chatting on her phone, never stopping to discipline her kids. Ten minutes later, the eight-year-old had goaded his siblings into causing as much mayhem as possible. They kept trying to rip off the puppets’ clothing, and at one point they started running around us in circles while screaming. Katie and I let this happen in a detached way. Don’t get me wrong, I considered sticking out my foot and tripping the eight-year-old into a display of holiday chocolates. But I resisted. Barely. Finally, the kid-storm subsided as the mother told them, “Come on, you’ve had enough.” Had enough? What did she mean? Did she let them torment simple puppeteers to help keep their more evil urges in check? As they left, Katie and I shared a look I’m sure tornado survivors share when the storm is over and they’re wearing those comfy fire blankets.
Finally, after the last child had gotten his fill of hugging Beartha (the last child actually hugged Beartha 15 adorable and eventually creepy times for no reason) and the shop owner realized we hadn’t helped sales at all, we were dismissed. Five hours of metal-folding-chair agony was over. I’m pretty sure five more minutes of bearing the weight of that obese bear puppet would have permanently damaged my shoulder. Katie and I packed up the puppets, and then watched the owner slowly cut us checks with clear regret. “Not as much business today as I would have liked.” Maybe that’s because no one wants to buy your wooden, creepy mini-reindeer? “I’m going to have ‘Rudolph’ stuck in my head for days.” I’m going to have “Good King Wenceslas” burned into my soul for eternity. The owner handed us our pay and turned to straighten up a display of Christmas stickers while hacking.
As Katie and I got the hell out of that store, I asked myself if it had been worth it. Katie was practically giddy about the whole thing. But I didn’t think it was actually worth the money, and not just because the store owner had dickishly only given us $60 each instead of the promised $75, something I didn’t notice until later that night. No, the money alone wasn’t enough, but I did have another ridiculous story to tell, and my once universal dislike of children had been distilled into just an intense hatred of shitty 7- to 9-year olds. All that together was certainly worth the five hours of nonstop, embarrassing public singing. And agonizing shoulder pain. Right?
This is the part where I usually say, “In some but not all articles, names or identifying characteristics or individual lines of dialogue have been changed to protect identities or because remembering exactly how things happened is hard. But in every case, an effort was made to maintain the integrity of these events that did indeed actually happen.” But, in this case, somebody else wrote the article. So I guess all bets are off.
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